Standoff weapons and other initiatives promise a renaissance in U.S. naval mine warfare.
The world is awash with naval mines.By some estimates, the world’s navies possess about a million sea mines of more than 400 types, including perhaps 400,000 in the arsenals of potential U.S. adversaries. That’s not counting water-borne improvised explosive devices that terrorists as well as traditional navies can use to challenge military and commercial transit of maritime chokepoints and even the high seas. (In early 2017, Houthi rebels planted mines and WBIEDs—most likely provided by Iran—near Red Sea ports, sinking several vessels and killing and wounding civilians. It is not far-fetched to expect Russia or a Russian proxy to use WBIEDs in non-attributed “gray zone” maritime insecurity operations.)
By contrast, the U.S. Navy has fewer than 10,000 sea mines of three types, the latest introduced in 1983. This relatively dusty and threadbare portion of the arsenal at once belies the effectiveness and efficiency of naval mines, and reflects the Navy’s on-again, off-again embrace of these weapons that wait.
This has pretty much been the case since 1776, when David Bushnell’s American Turtle used a limpet mine to attack, without success, HMS Eagle in the Hudson River. During the Civil War, sea mines were the South’s strategic anti-access/area-denial weapon of choice. Despised as “unchivalrous” by Union commanders, Confederate mines severely damaged or sank 35 Union ships — along with 11 of their own.
In the following century, the U.S. Navy laid many thousands of mines in World Wars I and II and the Vietnam War, at times with strategic effects. During the Cold War, a variety of advanced, sophisticated, multiple-influence bottom and moored anti-submarine and -surface mines were to be deployed in bastions, chokepoints, and gaps against a burgeoning Soviet fleet should the “balloon” go up.
The Navy last deployed mines in combat during the Persian Gulf War. In January 1991, four A-6E Intruder bombers planted a minefield of Destructor bomb-converted shallow-water mines at the mouth of the Kwahr Az Zubayr River to deny Iraqi access to the northern Gulf. One of the Intruders was lost and its crew killed by anti-aircraft fire, and there was no confirmation that Iraqi naval movements were affected.
Today’s USN Weapons that Wait
The oldest of the U.S. Navy’s trio of mine types was introduced in 1979: the Mk67 Submarine Launched Mobile Mine, a 2,000-pound bottom mine that attacks surface ships and submarines in shallow water. Launched from an attack submarine’s torpedo tube, the SLMM covertly transits to a predetermined location, and waits. It is particularly useful for mining areas that are not accessible to other mines, but few remain in service.
The other two types, introduced just four years later, are deployed by aircraft: the Mk65 thin-walled bottom mine and the Mk62/63 Quickstrike bottom mines. While the former is a 2,000-pound purpose-built mine, the latter are kits fitted onto the Navy’s ubiquitous 500- and 1,000-pound conventional bombs, allowing aircraft carrier air wings to conduct mining operations without carrying dedicated mines as additional ordnance.
The air-launched types are getting a major upgrade in the form of the Mk71 target detection device, a state-of-the-art firing mechanism that can sense multiple influences and be programmed with sophisticated target-processing and counter-countermeasures algorithms. This enables the Navy’s miners to optimize performance against different target classes and to respond to future threat targets. Continuing engineering development efforts include advanced algorithms for ship detection, classification, and localization against a wide variety of threats. The Navy has fielded the Mk71 TDD for the Mk65 mine and in 2018 is performing final qualification testing for using the Quickstrike Mk62/63 mines.
And new variants are in the works: standoff versions of the Quickstrikes designed to prevent a repeat of the 1991 loss of the mining aircraft to ground fire. In September 2014, the then-U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) demonstrated the extended-range Quickstrike-ER, a modification of the 500-pound winged Joint Direct-Attack Munition (JDAM)-ER. (INDO-PACOM remains very interested in a modern mining capability.) Dropped from a B-52H strategic bomber, this was the first-ever deployment of a high-accuracy, precision, standoff aerial mine. Subsequently, a parallel joint effort among PACOM, the Navy, and the Air Force had its first success in a 2,000-pound Mk64 Quickstrike-JDAM laid by a B-52H. Testing has continued, from the B-52, B-1, and F/A-18, demonstrating that the Quickstrike-J can be deployed from high altitudes and at great standoff ranges by any aircraft equipped to drop the GBU-31 JDAM. With GPS precision, bombers can lay an entire minefield in a single pass without even coming close to the minefield. There are two variants: The 2,000-pound weapon is the Quickstrike-J, called “Skipjack,” has only the JDAM guidance kit. The 500-pound Quickstrike-ER version, “Flounder,” has both a JDAM-ER guidance kit and a pair of folding wings. Development efforts are ongoing to demonstrate and field a 2,000-pound version of the Quickstrike-ER.
In January 2015, Admiral James A. Winnefeld, then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, challenged the Navy’s mining experts to think broadly: “Within five years, how can our operating forces disrupt/deter an adversary vessel in international waters using mines that are smart, controllable, C2-enabled, mission adaptable, and payload—kinetic and non-kinetic—flexible?”
The Navy has taken up the admiral’s challenge and is pursuing several mine/mining initiatives that promise a renaissance in U.S. naval warfare. For example, Navy research and development labs are collaborating on a Smart Mine Initiative (SMI) that is a component development and prototyping effort to accelerate the fielding of an initial kinetic “encapsulated homing effector” capability for wider area coverage in deeper water than possible in 2018.
Moreover, these come in addition to the Navy’s improving the in-service shallow-water Quickstrike converted-bomb bottom mines with Joint Direct-Attack Munition (JDAM GPS guidance and wing packages that enable aircraft-launched mines with ranges and precision-accuracies unheard-of before now. Another near-term option includes repurposing excess Mk67 SLMM warheads to make Clandestine Delivered Mines delivered by unmanned undersea vehicles.
Importantly, this need to address modern, modular “smart” mines—capabilities well beyond the improved Quickstrikes and Clandestine Delivered Mines —dovetails with evolving concepts for seabed warfare. There is an incipient but growing demand for non-traditional mines that are delivered with accuracy and precision, controlled remotely, able to discriminate targets, able to deploy both kinetic and non-kinetic “effectors,” and cover wide areas. Thus, it is something that generates military “effects” well beyond a traditional explode-in-place high-explosive warhead mine. In short, the U.S. Navy is expanding the concept of the “mine.”
In addition to anti-submarine and anti-ship remote control mines, for example, this could include encapsulated seabed-to-air anti-aircraft missiles, drones or other warfare effectors. Others see the deployment of encapsulated communications and command-and-control nodes. The new “mines” will be modular and deliverable from a wide variety of vessels. The sensors and effectors could be part of a distributed seabed network capable of multi-phase warfare operations. Thus, smart mining—a.k.a. “encapsulated effector”—capabilities will become part of a “kill web” offering flexible, scalable, distributed, forward, persistent, and autonomous lethal and non-lethal effects from the seabed.
The general concept of seabed warfare, particularly in the mine warfare community, is not new. Naval mines tethered to and resting on/beneath the seabed have been constants for America’s Navy for much of its history. What is new in is the coalescing of diverse technologies, modular systems, and platforms that can generate a variety of kinetic (in addition to the traditional high-explosive mine) and non-kinetic effects for seabed warfare missions throughout the undersea domain. The Smart Mine Initiative involves a suite of modular, flexible seabed-deployed encapsulated effectors that offer commanders a spectrum of options by facilitating the integration of existing sensors and weapon systems into a cohesive, networked seabed capability.
The Smart Mine Initiative has focused on prototyping viable concepts and capabilities for an offensive modular solution that can disrupt, deter, and/or disable an adversary vessel in a contested environment, as well as support distributed maritime operations. The operational concept is to give a commander the ability to select payloads with varying capabilities/effects that can be delivered to the theater and launched from a variety of undersea platforms.
Wait No More?
The continuing efforts in advanced mining development and improvements to the in-service mine inventory are responding to growing demands by the geographic combatant commanders for more and better mine-like systems to deal with burgeoning global maritime competition and different scales of conflict. The U.S. Navy is poised to achieve a strategic objective in making America’s adversaries worry about U.S. mines and creating our own asymmetric anti-access/area-denial advantage. The integration of these advanced capabilities into our evolving seabed warfare strategy creates an additional factor that must be taken into account by our adversaries’ decision-making. The service must continue to fund, develop, and deliver capabilities that will ensure strategic, operational, and tactical advantage within a challenging and dynamic undersea domain.
“The legal, technical, and conceptual challenges to developing and employing such a device are surmountable. It will not be enormously expensive to develop or procure,” Admiral Winnefeld and Captain Ahmad conclude in a 2018 essay that expands upon the admiral’s 2015 speech. “The only question will be whether cultural and programmatic challenges will continue to stand in the way. Of one thing we can be nearly certain: if the United States does not do this, another nation probably will . . . and probably already is.”
The views expressed in this article are the authors' and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.